Tom of Finland

tomoffinlandTouko Laaksonen, better known as the fetish artist Tom of Finland, liked to draw what aroused him: beefy men in uniform, or leather, or leather uniform. A veteran of World War II, Touko seemed to draw his aesthetic partly from the Nazis, with whom the Finnish army fought against the Soviet Union in an example of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend — kind of.” (Finland stayed independent and never formally allied with Nazi Germany; near the end of the war the two countries got into it with each other anyway.) I don’t think the new Finnish biopic Tom of Finland gets into the Nazi thing, which is probably for the best; by his own admission, Touko was never particularly political at heart, though his work ended up being plenty political.

Touko (Pekka Strang) cuts an artsy figure — with his porkpie hat and mustache, he resembles a Eurotrash R. Crumb (whose bizarrely sexual comics, like Touko’s art, are as notorious as they are renowned). He slouches around Finland, furtively pursuing men in parks or at “poker parties” and risking arrest. (Homosexuality wasn’t decriminalized in Finland until 1971.) He has a job in advertising, and on the side he draws painstaking pictures of men posing alone or in twos or threes, sometimes busy, sometimes just bulging. What made Touko’s drawings so magnetic to gay men in later years, and what gives them a spark that transcends the usual porn, is that they come from such an obvious, desperate place of, well, concupiscence. It was his inner orgy life given form, though in technique it was, as one critic said, illustrative but not expressive. The men’s expressions are sullen or glazed over with lust (there are some exceptions). The blankness of their faces is a good screen on which the viewer can project his fantasies.

The movie’s Touko seems to follow suit, eventually shopping for leather-daddy gear and becoming one of his own stolid cartoons. Touku never seems especially cheerful or even happy. The frequent same-sex encounters are filmed rather neutrally by straight director Dome Karukoski. The heart of the movie is in the relationships between Touku and those who love him, such as his disapproving sister (Jessica Grabowsky), or his younger lover who succumbs to AIDS, or the Californian gays who invite him out to see the impact he had on American rough-trade culture (in the West Coast ‘70s as well as the Helsinki ‘40s, it’s all about butch hair and mustaches and shared cigarettes and sexuality so aggressively lunging it seems almost like Kabuki at times). What we don’t know is whether he loves them back — or can. The film cites Touko’s wartime stabbing to death of a Russian paratrooper as the event that froze his soul, took him out of the human race and sidelined him as a watcher, an artist.

Once the movie gets to California and the snarky twinks and amiable bears who revere Tom of Finland’s work, its outlook improves and it shakes off, at least temporarily, the Helsinki blues. It does spend a lot of our time beforehand being dreary (though, as lighted by cinematographer Lasse Frank, gorgeously dreary — not drearily dreary as in the recent England Is Mine). I found myself wanting a whole movie documenting Touko’s bright years in the ‘70s, before AIDS decimated the community and before Touko himself fell to emphysema in 1991. But in order to appreciate Touko’s liberation and vindication in his later years we need to see the repression/oppression of his youth. In the ‘40s, Touko passes one of his naughtier drawings under a toilet stall as a come-on; he gets a fat lip for his troubles. Fast-forward to the ‘70s, and dudes are dueling with giant inflatable phalluses at pool parties where wayward police, rather than being feared, are catcalled.

That juicy round of hooting at embarrassed cops who, in another time and place, would have been arresting the whole party is gratifying and about as close as Tom of Finland comes to pure comedy — except when it shows us Touko’s work. The drawing has the fizz of an artist mesmerized by his own onanistic images, like all those so-aroused-it-hurts drawings by R. Crumb of fat-bottomed girls, or S. Clay Wilson’s seething panoramas of filth. It has wit, and a refreshing lack of sentiment. Would that the same were true of the film, which goes a little soft (flaccid, if you will) near the end, with a bunny brought into a dying man’s hospital room — the scene is, I think, a mistake. But most of the handsomely assembled film pays tribute not to the man’s pornography but to the way it pointed gay men away from shame towards pride, like an arrow, or like something similarly shaped.

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